The editor’s opinion from Marketplace, Northeast Wisconsin’s business magazine. (Obligatory disclaimer: Most hyperlinks go to outside sites, and we’re not responsible for their content. And like fresh watermelon, peaches, pineapple, grapefruit, tomatoes and sweet corn, hyperlinks can go bad after a while.)

April 17, 2008

Success, after 20 years

There is one more April 1 election result that is personally interesting to me. Voters in Grant County, in southwest Wisconsin, voted to reduce the size of their county board from 31 supervisors to 17.

This is an issue I walked into in my first post-college job, as the reporter at the Grant County Herald Independent in Lancaster. For the three years I was there, plus the year and half I was editor and co-publisher of the Tri-County Press in Cuba City, I wrote occasional editorials wondering why a county of, at the time, 51,000 population needed 32 county supervisors. (That was supposedly an improvement from years earlier, when the county board had 68 supervisors — one for each town and village, and one for each city ward; Grant County has five cities.) Controversy really erupted when we discovered that most of the supervisors, most of whom were retired farmers, were on the Grant County employee health insurance plan, and they were certainly not paying the full cost of insurance.

Our reporting of that fact and editorializing against that fact made the Herald Independent’s editor and I really popular with the county board. (There must be a sarcasm emoticon somewhere …). Following the 1990 Census, the board did reduce its size … from 32 supervisors to 31 — approximately one supervisor per 1,600 people; by contrast, each of the 16 Appleton aldermen represents about 4,500 people — and yet the health insurance benefit remained, which was particularly costly — the county had probably added supervisors to the health plan years earlier to get more covered people and thus reduce costs; the problem was that, because supervisors were mostly retired farmers, the county had to cover all of their health costs, which obviously increase as the covered person ages.

The precipitating event, after more than 20 years of editorial attention and more than 20 years of the County Board intransigently refusing to even consider the issue, apparently was overcrowding at the Grant County Jail. Sheriff’s Department employees, frustrated that the county board had done nothing about jail overcrowding, circulated the petitions that put the issue on the April ballot, and it passed with almost 69 percent of the vote.

Fond du Lac County, where I live, reduced its county board in half by referendum in 2006. A friend of mine opposed the referendum, asking why anyone would vote to reduce their representation in government.

The answer, of course, is that if you don’t feel you’re being represented by the existing power structure, having, in Fond du Lac County’s case at the time, 36 or 136 supervisors won’t make a difference. (To extend that point, I think, given the quality of their work, Wisconsin could get along fine without its two U.S. senators. Neither has represented me for one day of their combined 36 years in Washington, particularly U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold [D–Madison].) The truism that stuff expands to fill the available space also applies to the workloads of elective bodies; fewer supervisors should mean the remaining supervisors will either have to work harder or, wonder of wonders, regulate less.

The Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance quotes an unnamed governor of Wisconsin who said, “Don’t overestimate what people know, but never underestimate their intelligence.” Or, as the saying goes, the wheels of justice grind slow, but grind they do.

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